On speedruns

I ramble for a while about video game speedruns

I want to get this out of the way right up front: Unless you're harming someone else, there's no wrong way to play a video game, as long as you're having fun doing it1.

Since this site primarily exists as a way for me to track my video game collection, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that I like to play a video game now and again2

The way I play games is, I think, pretty typical. Something happens in a game, I react, something else happens in the game, I react, and so on. It's not optimal, but I've never been one to want to optimize that process. By that, I mean I've never gotten into the mindset that I want to play a game as quickly as possible. Sure, I might want to get better, I might want to end up playing a game particularly well, but I never really wanted to play any particular game quickly.

But the way these things go, at least in my case, I don't have the endless hours of youth to pour into 'getting good' at games that I used to3. With sites like YouTube, though, that's less of an issue, because if I don't have the time to play a particular game or see it all the way to the end, odds are that someone else has already played the game to the end and put up the footage on YouTube somewhere. It's equal parts disturbing and convenient.

Inevitably, though, thanks to The Algorithmâ„¢, you'll eventually get linked to two particular categories of video game videos other than the standard random gameplay segment videos: Longplays, where someone plays through a game from start to finish, usually to show off as much of the game as possible; and speedruns, where someone plays through a game from start to finish4 with the goal to show as little of the game as possible.

I appreciate skill in games5, and I enjoy watching someone more skilled than I am play through a game that I've also played and comparing what they do to what I do, or watching how they tackle a particularly tricky section. And, it's kind of a given that if you play a game enough times that you will usually get better at it. And when you get better at it, you get better at reacting to the things that the game does, and when you get better at reacting to the things that the game does, you can start to anticipate what the game does. Every game is a glorified computer program, after all, and its behaviors can be mostly sussed out by repeatedly running it with slightly different inputs and observing the output.

In a lot of video games, the goal is to get to the end6. And since humans tend to be at least a little bit competitive by nature, it makes a degree of sense to me that if you and your friends are each playing the same game, you might decide to have a friendly (or not so friendly) competition to see who can get to the end of the game first or who can satisfy some arbitrary condition first.

Speedrunners, though, take this to a crazy extreme. The goal: activate the win condition7 by any means necessary. Usually this means devising8 memorizing and executing a series of inputs. Speedrunners, especially of certain games with few random elements, are, to me, no longer playing a game in a sense of playing a game. It's more like they're playing a game like someone might play an instrument. That is, they practice the motions enough times that they can produce the same output every time.

This is particularly evident if you watch many of the recent GDQ9 replays. At the end of a lot of them, you get the people performing the speedrun to evangelize that if you, the viewer, want to learn 'the speedrun' of a particular game to look them up. The speedrun. Now how to speedrun, but how to execute the speedrun for a particular game. They will teach you the currently-accepted optimal way to play a game.

Learning a speedrun takes a certain amount of skill, sure, but it also takes a lot of memorization of instructions that someone else already made. Kind of like how learning to play Flight of the Bumblebee is a very impressive feat. I can appreciate both kinds of feats and the discipline required to pull them off, especially in a live environment.

But, for me, I'll always prefer watching technically inferior play over techincally superior speedruns simply because I find watching the techniques of people who aren't into hyperoptimizing everything to be more varied and interesting.


  1. If you aren't having fun doing it, then you're probably a video game tester, and, if that's the case... sorry.
  2. And if that does come as a surprise to you, either you got linked here from somewhere else and haven't looked at the rest of the site yet, or you really need to work on your reading comprehension
  3. Or even playing games at all, but that's another article for another day
  4. The definition of 'finish' varies greatly between speedruns and is way too broad to go into here
  5. And in other areas, too*
    • Obviously
  6. Unless the game doesn't have an end, in which case, speedrunning becomes moot
  7. Which may not have anything to do with reaching the end of the game
  8. Via lots of methods including playing the game and seeing what happens, finding and exploiting bugs, and about a billion other methods
  9. Games Done Quick, a bunch of people who show off live speedruns a couple times a year ostensibly to raise money for charity

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